Why I want my daughter to experience frustration and failure at school

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

It's impossible to say this without sounding like a bragging mother, but here it is: my daughter is super clever. I know, I know, but I swear it's a fact: she has a natural academic ability.

This, it may be surprising to hear, doesn't serve her well at school.

I had a similar experience in my own childhood. As the third child in my family, I'd watched with wonder as my older siblings came home from school each day, tired from their heads being filled with knowledge. I observed this with envy; they were living the dream!

You can imagine my joy when it was eventually my turn to march into the classroom and have that same knowledge transferred into my head. And perhaps you can imagine my disappointment when primary school turned out to be nothing like I'd hoped.

The first few years involved me begging teachers for more work, more challenges, the chance to finish a day with learning exhaustion like my classmates did.

One teacher gave in, handing me some homework: a colouring-in sheet. Even at six years old, I knew she was fobbing me off.

After those first few years, I gave up asking. I accepted that school was about coasting along, and I filled my class time with daydreams.

Mostly, my identity as a learner became this: I was good at school. I knew stuff. My job as a learner wasn't to work hard and try things, it was to be good at things.

This is pretty dangerous territory for someone who was born with a perfectionist personality.


Not every child – but still important

I know that this isn't every child's experience.

I understand that primary school is, for most, a chance to set into place the basics of education and knowledge, to play and learn about themselves in a social setting. For some it's a struggle to get to the point of knowledge and skill that they need – and this is, rightly, the direction in which teachers are so often pulled.

The thing is, when you're at the other end of the scale – going to school hoping to learn more than the foundations you already have – you can be forgotten.

Like all parents, I want my daughter to thrive, and it's heartbreaking to see her receive the same message I did.

I admit that it sounds like a 'first world problem': the kid who's clever at school isn't given extra work. Boo hoo! The challenge, though, is in leaving potential high achievers bored and disengaged with school and – even more problematically – as the idea of being lifelong learners.

Dr Jae Jung, from the University of NSW has told the ABC that those who are advanced beyond their years are often forgotten. "Often what happens is nothing is done for gifted students," he said.

Dr Gabrielle Oslington, who is a specialist teacher in the 'gifted and talented' arena, wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald: "We also need to permit our gifted young to experience frustration, failure and consequences."

Not about academic results

When I say that I want my daughter to be extended, and that my husband and I are looking at options for making this a reality, people assume our reasons are purely academic. They assume we want to push her; that we want to be able to brag about her latest test results; that we want her at the top of the finest school we can access.

This is far from the truth. Our reasons for wanting her extended are based on wanting our daughter to not have a ceiling put on her that she spends her school life trying to push higher.

That can co-exist with her having fun, experiencing lots of time to play and develop friendships, to learn through play, and have a healthy mind and body.

When a child becomes used to being naturally good at things, they aren't given the chance to experience failure and frustration. They can't learn to persist, to try things they might not be good at immediately, and to feel a sense of real achievement in surprising themselves.

That's why I'd love to see my daughter, and kids like her, being extended at school.